I’m approaching retirement after living all my sixty years as a North Carolina resident.
Recently, I had a talk with a representative from the company that handles my workplace 401K account. “You’re looking great,” he said, running through the different scenarios in their online tool and giving me his opinions about possible retirement dates.
I’ve been lucky. Having steady employment for the past thirty years, putting a little aside where I can, and recent modest inheritance has put me in a place where I can look forward to a retirement on an adequate income.
Or will it?
I’ve been using the planning tools on the website of my 401K provider for the past few months. It’s comprehensive and helpful, asking you to input information from your Social Security statement and outside savings and investment accounts, along with estimates of what you’ll need as income in your retirement years. I just needed some explanation from the representative about the assumptions the tool was making about markets, inflation, and other factors.
The tool lets you run three different scenarios - an above average market, an average market, and blow average - showing you, year by year, what you could withdraw from savings and investments and where, in the long term, you might come up short.
I still feel uneasy. With the political conditions of the past few years, there are more important factors at play here than the historical performance of the markets and economy.
There’s no option in the planning tool for the scenarios I'm really thinking about - a) the GOP authoritarian “fever” breaks and things actually improve, b) things stay the same, with Republicans shifting in and out of power and not being able to substantially change things, like eliminating Social Security, c) Republicans take control and eliminate Social Security and Medicare, or d) the US devolves into regional conflict - or some combination of the last two.
I thought the 2022 election would give me some clarity on this, but it didn’t. Nationally, the Democrats held their own in most races and most of the GOP election-deniers were defeated. But, here in North Carolina, the opposite happened - the Democrats were able to prevent a veto-proof majority by the GOP in the legislature, but many local races went to fire-breathing Christian Nationalist racists and crackpots. While nationally, the GOP faced a rejection of the election-denying authoritarian GOP, the rhetoric from the violent right continues, with no tamping down of extremist talk by the “mainstream” GOP. Hence, we get a random shooter killing five people and injuring twenty others in a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs on Transgender Remembrance Day.
Some of my friends think I’m just a worry-wart. But, trained as a historian and looking at the big picture. I’m not convinced that things can’t or won't quickly go to hell in a hand-basket in at least parts of the US and particularly here in North Carolina.
Some analysts I’ve seen online back me up here, seeing similarities to “The Troubles" that plagued Northern Ireland for a few decades.
IRA violence hung like a Damocles’ sword, an ever-present threat, a heckler’s veto over northern Irish politics. If the political process didn’t produce outcomes favorable to their cause, it could always pivot to terrorism. In exchange, Sinn Féin gave political representation and ideological legitimacy to the IRA. The Sinn Féin-IRA alliance enabled the republican side to have its cake and eat it too: I tried to play fair, but look what you made me do.
I am reminded of these dynamics when I observe the evolution of the Republican Party. For example, following the FBI’s raid on Donald Trump’s residence earlier this week, right-wing commentators exploded with threats of violence and predictions of civil war. Once beyond the pale, such rhetoric is now almost routine: Those giving it voice were refining a playbook increasingly deployed in the year and a half since the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Facing a depressed economy due to GOP policies is easy to imagine and plan for. Something worse than that - the elimination of Social Security and Medicare - is easy to quantify in a retirement planner, and shock most people into realizing they won’t be able to retire at all.
But what if the US or regions of the country devolve into two or three decades of something similar to The Troubles - daily or weekly events of random terrorism - mass shootings, bombings, targeted killings of political leaders or activists, or the occasional armed insurrections to take over a local or state government?
Economists have us covered here. There have been several studies on the economic impact of The Troubles on Northern Ireland’s economy. One summary noted:
Using the ‘value of a statistical life’ (VSL) approach, one suggests that £14 billion has been lost to cover personal injuries, material damages and law and order costs (Birnie and Hitchens, 1999).
Another more narrowly focused study found investment levels far more responsive to violence than employment (Fielding, 2003). The research indicated that a 10% increase in fatalities reduced investment in machinery and investment by about 5.6%; but there was no corresponding relationship between fatalities and employment.
While more recent work suggests that there was a GDP reduction equal to 10%, compared with a ‘no-Troubles’ baseline GDP. If additional grants related to the Troubles are included, then the scale of the reduction associated with violence increases to 15-20% (Dorsett, 2013).
In the retirement planner used on my account, the scenarios it presents for a below average market - the “worst case scenario” typically used for retirement planning - a return of 4% - 5% is assumed during your retirement.
Now imagine what your retirement would look like with a 10% drop (or more) in your returns. That’s what we’re facing if the extremist GOP is allowed to continue random acts of violence and terrorism.
Add to that the costs incurred by businesses, insurance companies, and towns, cities, counties or states for police work, prosecutions, treating the injured or maimed, and terrorist disaster cleanup, the economic damage will really add up.
And, of course, the economics of this potential future are just part of the equation when you’re planning for retirement.
In the county where I live in North Carolina, a right-wing sheriff who has been playing footsie with violent groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers was reelected to office in 2022. This after widely publicized cases where he and his deputies physically harassed and arrested Blacks walking from church to the polls, attacked and detained peaceful protestors calling for the removal of a Confederate statue, and being investigated by the Department of Justice for illegal targeting of Hispanics.
On top of that, our county’s annual Pride celebrations regularly receives violent threats - so much so that the town police quietly set up snipers on buildings around the event and undercover officers patrolling the venue, just in case. Local activists and just concerned progressive citizens involved in the Black Lives Matter movement have been doxxed and harassed after posting online.
It’s not difficult for me to imagine, in as few as two or three years, continued control of the NC legislature by GOP extremists, a governorship held by GOP stooge and all-around gun nut and homophobe Mark Robinson, a right wing Attorney General, and a GOP controlled Supreme Court that would simply look the other way if the local Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, or Christian Nationalist group decided to go out pistol-whipping some gays, taking drive-by potshots at Democratic candidates, office holders, or activists or firebombing homes or businesses.
Who the hell wants to retire in an environment like that, let along raise a family and kids or start a business?
So, add to the possible cost of retirement, picking up and moving to another state where random acts of terrorism are less likely to happen or be ignored by authoritarian, power-hungry screwballs in local and state offices.
How likely is this future? I haven’t a clue. But the fact I have to seriously consider it as a scenario for my retirement planning should have all of us worried. The odds, based on what I'm seeing, don't look good.
While the North Carolina Democratic Party and academics go through the motions of analyzing their failures in the 2022 election - failures to motivate young voters and get out the base or the quality of candidates seeking office - the career political analysts and consultants need to just shut the fuck up and take a cold, hard look at what a possible future in North Carolina might look like for those of us “on the ground”.
If some deep pocket donors and businesses are still contributing to Republican candidates or Democratic leaders in the state are just wanting to do the same-old, same-old song and dance as the extremist GOP becomes more entrenched and greedy for power, shove some economic numbers from The Troubles up their ass and ask them what they’re going to do about GOP terrorism.
This is our future if we allow this to continue.
Plan should include part-time work
Once you start drawing Social Security, there's a ceiling on what you can still earn via continued employment. Figure out what that's going to be ahead of time, so you won't have to scramble. My dad actually worked full time up until he hit each year's limit, then took the rest of the year off. But the stress of catching up at the beginning of each new year made that less than ideal.
That being said, it did give him an adjustment period (semi-retired), so when he finally cut the work chord completely, it wasn't like cold turkey. Or whatever.
Working after retirement
I do plan on working part-time for a period after retirement to help with that transition. But, for financial planning purposes, I'm making an assumption I might not be able to do that for one reason or another.
One curious aspect of the pandemic is that job switched from on-site to primarily off-site, so it's given me a taste of what it's like to be retired, mostly at home, from both a financial and lifestyle perspective.
I had a retirement party ten years ago, at which point I stopped being an employee of my company. The next day a long-standing client asked if I'd help her out on a new project and I agreed to do that. I don't know what I would have done without that work.
Over the intervening years, I've taken time away from work to go camping, and in some cases just to chill. But I've always found myself lured back into freelance for one reason or another. The income has been critical for never-ending expenses of home repair and maintenance. But more important has been the need to keep my brain active. I just finished two branding projects this week, both of which have been very satisfying.
I'm 72. People around me are dropping like flies and I've had my own run-ins with heart problems, brain problems, high blood pressure and more. A few times over the past two years I thought I was a goner. Now I seem more or less stable. Who knows?
I say all this to illustrate what we all know: it's impossible to predict how long we'll need to be able to pay for living and care expenses. I'm expecting to live another 10 or 15 years and I'm thinking that will be gracious plenty.
PS I have been working from home ever since I retired. One of my conditions for new work is "zero travel." For the kind of work I do, there has rarely been a need for me to physically be at any particular location. The pandemic drove that point home for sure.
I've been working through many of the same scenarios you have and come to the same worrisome conclusions: the risk of a fascist takedown of the US economy is more than real, it's likely.
Any successes by Republicans to eliminate or modify the plan will be met with widespread litigation and, probably, violence. Policies won't change immediately, but the shock of planned change will ricochet throughout the financial sector, signaling a new Dark Age of despair. The snowball effect will spiral our economy into the toilet.
I'll be knocking at death's door by the time that happens. My children and their children will pay the price.
I'm reminded ...
The broader attitude I see among our Democratic Party leaders and those in business that are still propping up Republican terrorism reminds me of the Trump administration's response to a climate change study a few years back. The administration acknowledged climate change is real, predicting a massive temperature rise by 2100, but we're screwed and we might as well not try to fix it. Basically, it's saying "I'll be dead then, so I don't care."
I think age and economic status is a big factor here. It's easy to just not take the possibility of decades of GOP violence seriously if you're looking at a short term horizon where you might be around for another decade or two or think you've got enough money to protect yourself from the violence itself or its economic impact.
There’s the perfect descriptor.
Well, that's what it is
Just last night, Tucker Carlson and his guest were on FoxNews saying that violent acts like the mass shooting in Colorado Springs will continue until gender affirming care is outlawed.
The larger, mainstream Republican response has been tepid, offering a few thoughts and prayers, but not condemning the violence outright and unequivocally.
Think back to any conservative terrorist act like this over the past few years. The most prominent figures in the GOP media - and several GOP political figures - said the 1/6 insurrectionists engaging in "valid protest" or hailed Kyle Rittenhouse and the murderer of Trayvon Martin as "heroes".
There's no pushback on this by supposed "mainstream" or moderate GOP leaders like Thom Tillis.
It's the same playbook used by Sinn Féin, using violence as political weapon - "the violence will continue until we get what we want".
I've thought about this a lot today
Republican terrorists is one of those expressions that many people would see as excessive or extreme, though it accurately describes the model. Threaten to blow shit up. Blow shit up. Kill some more. Step and repeat. Seems like a whole system oriented toward domination through force.
More specific and thinking about a spectrum
I think you really have to think about this as something very specific - it’s politically motivated terrorism. It’s not just violence for the sake of chaos.
It also manifests itself on a spectrum and, within that spectrum, the different levels of political terrorism by the GOP have escalated.
At the core, you have the terrorists themselves and those being groomed to be committed and involved enough to commit terroristic acts. A couple of decades ago, their rhetoric centered on “First Amendment rights” and “defending themselves”, but only went the step of direct action, like a Timothy McVeigh.
Now, this core’s rhetoric has accelerated to the point where they openly plan and encourage acts of violence against political figures or targets - Congress on January 6th, gays in public spaces (Colorado Springs and Orlando), “menacing” BLM protestors (Charlottesville), shooting up a synagogue (Poway, California in 2019) or individual “stand your ground” murders targeting Blacks.
A step away from the core are the hate mongers and encouragers. A couple of decades ago, these were the people who played footsie with extremist groups - they might have supported Neo-Confederate or racists or Christian Nationalist groups, speaking at their events and such, but keeping their public rhetoric supporting their cause “in check”.
Now, this wing of the party has progressed to violent rhetoric. Marjorie Taylor Greene (and others in Congress and state houses) all but calling for targeted assassinations and terrorism through coded and implied language without a direct command to go out and kill. Tucker Carlson (and others) saying that “we have to defend ourselves against trans people”. And countless QAnon figures and ministers that regularly spew violent hate speech. These same figures are also hailing terrorists as “heroes” or “patriots” and are very open in their support of violent groups and movements.
A circle away from that are the “mainstream” Republicans - Them Tills, Berger and Moore, and the like. What they're doing really hasn't changed much over the past couple of decades.
They stay quiet about their extremist political colleagues or figures in the right-wing media. They might timidly condemn acts of violence, but are quick to point out it happens on “both sides”, promulgating nonsense about liberal cities burned by BLM activists. They also push through legislation that makes it easier for the terrorists to operate - free and easy gun laws or legislation prohibiting law enforcement from investigating right-wing extremist groups - or fully participate in hearings designed to “gum up the works” for law enforcement or courts dealing with domestic terrorism committed by the right wing.
Other figures in this wing of the GOP in the media “both sides” any act of terrorism, try to shift the conversation to it being a “mental health problem”, or detract by promoting the latest scandal about the Bidens, Clinton, or whoever the boogeyman of the moment is on the right. Pastors, like Franklin Graham, participate in this as well, mirroring the same talking points.
The one thing they specifically don’t do is unequivocally condemn the violence coming from the right-wing or do anything about it. As long as it continues, it helps them keep power, both by not pissing off their extremist base, but also by letting that extreme base use terrorist acts to intimidate liberal foes, minorities, elected officials, and others that get in the way of their agenda.
Think about it - there was more loud condemnation against Madison Cawthorne or Mark Robinson when their actions threatened the moderate “image” they were trying to promote, but you don’t hear them saying a damn thing about right-wing terrorist actions.
And, yes, this is the kind of thing you saw in Northern Ireland and with parties in other countries that devolved into political terrorism for years or decades.
The evil genie is out of the bottle, and running wild across the land. It would be nice if mainstream Republicans were to condemn this violence, but even if they do, it won’t matter. The cult is running full throttle. Violence and more violence is inevitable. Such rampant stupidity.
NY Times on GOP Political Terrorism
It seems reporters at the NY Times have been thinking about this issue. From an article this weekend, headlined, "At Protests Across America, Guns Are Doing the Talking".